- On Jan. 15, a refinery owned by Spanish oil company Repsol spilled nearly 12,000 barrels of oil into the sea off Lima, Peru, as it was pumping the oil from a tanker.
- Experts have questioned why the refinery of La Pampilla was operating that day, when there were unusually high waves caused by the Tonga volcano eruption and tsunami.
- Peru’s Environmental Evaluation and Enforcement Agency (OEFA) has fined Repsol for similar spills on at least three prior occasions, and this time the company could be hit with more than $37 million in fines.
- The spill has spread beyond the Lima coast and out toward islands that are part of a network of protected nature reserves, posing serious threats to marine life and to artisanal fishermen.
The central coast of Peru is cleaning up after a catastrophe due to a large oil spill on Jan. 15, 2022. The environmental emergency occurred after a pipe ruptured between an Italian oil tanker, the Mare Doricum, and the refinery of La Pampilla, owned by Spanish oil major Repsol.
On Jan. 17, Rubén Ramírez, Peru’s then-minister of the environment, spoke of “a spill of 6,000 barrels of oil.” However, at a Jan. 28 press conference, the government announced that the total amount of crude oil that spilled into the ocean was nearly double that initial estimate.
“The new estimate is 11,900 barrels,” said Alfredo Mamani, the vice minister of strategic natural resources development. Mamani added that “there are 4,225 barrels recovered, but it is an emulsion of water and oil; it is not net [oil].”
Oil-covered birds and seals, among other marine species, were some of the evidence of the magnitude of the environmental disaster, which occurred along the coast of Ventanilla district in the port of Callao outside Lima, where the refinery is located. The effects of the oil spill have even spread to the protected area known as the Guano Islands, Islets, and Capes National Reserve System.
At the Jan. 17 press conference, Ramírez said Repsol could face a fine equivalent to more than $37 million.
“There will be a sanction according to the action or omission that the company has committed,” Ramírez said. He added that it’s important to note that Repsol did not report the incident in a timely manner and that the company failed to describe the magnitude of the disaster, alluding to Repsol’s initial claim that only seven barrels of oil had been spilled.
Miriam Alegría, the president of Peru’s Environmental Evaluation and Enforcement Agency (OEFA in Spanish), said that drone flyovers determined that the oil slick had covered 18,000 square meters (194,000 square feet) of the ocean.
This is not the first environmental incident involving the refinery of La Pampilla. On at least three other occasions, according to the OEFA, La Pampilla has been fined a total of nearly $230,000 for infractions committed in 2013, 2016 and 2018.
The impact on natural protected areas
The photos of the wild animals during the first days of the spill showed some of the devastating impacts. There were seals covered in oil crawling through the sand, and birds practically immobilized by black oil blanketing them from head to toe. Many of them were rescued by people who found them on beaches in Ventanilla, like Costa Azul Beach, Bahía Blanca Beach, and Cavero Beach.
Specialists from Peru’s National Forest and Wildlife Service (SERFOR in Spanish) traveled to the beaches to tend to the wildlife affected by the oil spill. Over the first month, they rescued more than 70 birds. They also logged more than 300 dead animals, nearly all of them birds but also one sea lion.
“The oil’s environmental impact on the ocean is very grave since — because it does not mix with water — it quickly spreads over the surface, initially damaging all the organisms on the surface and the shores of the ocean,” said marine biologist Yuri Hooker, director of the biology lab at Cayetano Heredia University.
Hooker said marine oil spills have three devastating effects. The first is directly on the marine birds and aquatic mammals like dolphins, seals and otters, which need to surface to breathe air, and on the fish that inhabit the surface, including the Argentinean silverside or pejerrey (Odontesthes bonariensis) and lisa fish (Mugil cephalus). Plankton are also a crucial part of these ecosystems.
“Not only are these microorganisms food for many species, but this is also where the eggs and larvae of almost all fish and invertebrates [shellfish] that live on the coast are found,” Hooker said.
The second impact is on sandy or rocky beaches, which are part of the intertidal zone. According to Hooker, an enormous number of organisms live on beaches and cannot escape the oil. These include Pacific sand crabs (Emerita analoga), mollusks called palabritas (Donax peruvianus), clams, painted ghost crabs, starfish, sea urchins, sea anemones, mussels, and many species of snails and crabs. There are also bird nests and otter dens in rocky areas.
“The effect on the intertidal [zone] is catastrophic,” Hooker said.
Finally, the third level of impact, according to Hooker, is at the ocean’s bottom. The oil, which does not initially mix with the water, captures many plankton and grains of sand as it hits the ocean floor.
“The oil becomes heavier and sinks like a sticky rain that adheres to the rocks and organisms on the ocean floor, in addition to the gills of fish,” Hooker said.
On Jan. 18, Peru’s National Service of Natural Protected Areas (SERNANP in Spanish) reported that the oil spill had reached the Guano Islands, Islets, and Capes National Reserve System, which includes Fishermen’s Island and the Ancón Reserved Zone.
The Guano Islands, Islets, and Capes National Reserve System was established in December 2009. The reserve system includes 22 islands and 11 capes that are home to seabirds along Peru’s coast, with an area of 140,833 hectares (348,006 acres) of islands, coastline, and ocean.
In terms of the Ancón Reserved Zone, which spans 10,452 hectares (25,827 acres), there are relatively few waves and the temperatures are slightly higher than the surrounding water. These conditions allow for the presence of a large group of diverse species, making the zone extremely important for the reproduction of coastal aquatic fauna.
“It is a grave situation, and it has reached protected areas with fauna and flora that must be conserved,” said marine biologist Andrea Collantes, an expert on oil spills, adding that the oil had spread from the original spill site “over 50 kilometers away by land, about 27 nautical miles in the ocean.”
Collantes added that the oil spill’s impact can be seen both at the biological level, which has to do with the impacts on the ocean and biodiversity, and the socioeconomic impact for artisanal fishermen and for tourism.
Investigations into Repsol
The Specialized Environmental Prosecutor’s Office in northwestern Lima opened an investigation into La Pampilla for alleged environmental pollution. The refinery is owned by the Peruvian branch of Repsol.
In a statement, the Specialized Environmental Prosecutor’s Office reported that after a tour of the affected area, prosecutor Ariel Tapia Gómez indicated that the large amount of oil in the ocean differed from the preliminary information provided by refinery officials. The latter had initially claimed that only seven barrels of crude oil had been spilled.
It would later come to light that this figure was inaccurate when Ramírez, the environment minister at the time, reported that 11,900 barrels of oil had been spilled instead of the 6,000 barrels that were reported.
The OEFA also issued administrative measures against Repsol, giving the company two days to identify the areas affected by the oil spill and 10 business days to clean up the affected area, among other remediation efforts.
Two weeks later, the OEFA announced that after Repsol’s failure to comply with some of the 12 administrative measures imposed on the company, it would initiate the process for imposing fines upon Repsol.
In 2013, the refinery was punished for an oil spill that also occurred in the ocean near Ventanilla. According to an OEFA report, the fine at that time amounted to the equivalent of about $83,000.
According to the OEFA, Repsol was fined in 2013 for failing to efficiently control and mitigate the negative impact on the environment, which had an immediate consequence on the sediment on Cavero Beach. The company was also accused of presenting inaccurate information in OEFA’s final disaster report, claiming that it had only spilled seven barrels of oil.
In 2016, Repsol was again fined, this time amount to about $142,000, for exceeding the maximum allowed limit of industrial liquid effluents and for failing to monitor air quality.
Repsol was fined a third time in 2018, for about $4,300, for failing to comply with an environmental management plan to monitor its chemical effluents.
“In addition to the administrative measures and sanctions imposed by the OEFA, the legal liability of the company’s representatives should be looked into,” said Percy Grandez, legal consultant for the marine governance and nature conservation initiatives at the Peruvian Society for Environmental Law (SPDA in Spanish).
Grandez also questioned why the company had been allowed to continue operating despite the abnormally large waves that occurred on Jan. 15, the day of the spill. The waves were generated by the Tonga volcanic eruption and ensuing tsunami some 10,000 km (6,200 mi) across the Pacific.
Initially, Repsol said in a statement that its operations produced a “limited spill” of oil in the ocean in Ventanilla “during the process of unloading [oil] from the tanker ship Mare Doricum, of Italy, due to the violence of the waves on Saturday on the coast in Lima.”
“The company, in its contingency plan, must anticipate any force majeure, like abnormal waves. The infractions are also being imposed upon[them] for not adopting preventative measures to avoid these spills,” Grandez said.
Collantes, the marine biologist, also questioned why, on the day of the massive eruption and tsunami in the Pacific, Repsol was operating at all, resulting in an oil spill that could have been avoided. “There were flaws from the start; it was not accidental,” Collantes said.
“These emergencies always catch us off guard. This is a case that gets lots of attention because it happened in Lima, but there have been so many [oil spills] in the north, where the impacts are not seen,” said Joanna Alfaro, a marine biology professor at the Scientific University of the South.
Alfaro recalled that about 10 years ago, dolphins were stranded on beaches in northern Peru as a result of oil spills there.
“At that time, the authorities made many commitments, but even now, we do not have adequate management of these cases: 10 years have passed, and nothing has changed,” she said.
In November 2019, Mongabay Latam reported on the frequent oil spills along Peru’s coast. The investigation found that the companies responsible were punished for providing false and incomplete information. The reporting showed that 88% of these oil spills occurred along the northernmost part of Peru’s coast.
The problem for fishermen
More than 500 artisanal fishermen are members of the Association of Artisanal Fishermen of Ancón (APESCAA in Spanish), which was organized to advocate for responsible fishing to allow for the conservation of the ocean’s resources.
“Our hands are tied,” said Avelino Ramírez, also known as Muyumi. Ramírez is the national coordinator of the Management Subcommittee of the Guano Islands and Capes of Ancón and of Fishermen’s Island. “We have had a tour with authorities and conservationist organizations to evaluate the damage to the ocean and the bay that this spill caused. Now, we fishermen cannot work,” he said.
Ramírez added that the oil slick has already passed the Ancón Reserved Zone and is headed toward the coast of Chancay, a province north of Lima.
“As a fisherman, I am worried about what is coming and the damage that the spill has caused. We have seen penguins, Guanay cormorants, [and] seals moving around covered in oil,” he said.
Currently, the docks along the oil-hit beaches remain closed. Therefore, fishing activities are suspended for the time being.
Besides the immediate problem of a loss of income for the artisanal fishermen, Ramírez said he worries about the consequences that the oil spill will have on the association’s efforts to promote responsible fishing and biodiversity protection in Ancón Bay and the Ancón Reserved Zone.
“All the work that was done for years has been turned upside down,” he said.
Matías Caillaux, coordinator of the oceans program at The Nature Conservancy, said that since 2015, and even before then, the artisanal fishermen of Ancón practiced responsible fisheries management. They established closed seasons, placed limits on resource extraction, rotated their fishing zones, and had surveillance shifts.
“It is one of the few cases in Peru in which the fishermen have regulated their activity and implemented these responsible use practices,” Caillaux said.
According to Caillaux, whose program provides technical advice to the shellfish fishermen of Ancón, it is imperative that the magnitude of the oil spill be quantified.
“We must have a clear idea of how much was spilled, how it was dispersed, and how far the oil will go,” he said.
He added he believes that it is also extremely important to repair the damage and to monitor the effects of the oil on the ocean.
“We should evaluate whether the presence of the oil and the heavy metals in the … resources still remain. Each time the presence of these elements is detected in the resources, fishing activities will be closed,” Caillaux said.
In June 2021, Gabriel Quijandría, the minister of the environment at the time, named APESCAA as ambassadors to a national initiative called “Peruanos Naturalmente” (“Peruvians Naturally”). This was in recognition of their work to conserve marine ecosystems and the well-being that fishing provides to people.
On Jan. 19, the Supervisory Agency for Investment in Energy and Mining of Peru (OSINERGMIN in Spanish) ordered activity to be stopped at La Pampilla’s Terminal No. 2, where the spill occurred. Meanwhile, the Ombudsman’s Office has called for the measured imposed by OEFA to be complied with.
Banner image: A bird rescued from the oil spill is cared for by personnel from the national wildlife agency, SERFOR. Image courtesy of SERFOR.